Four Fruits of Philosophy
Some high-profile scientists say philosophy is useless — here are four reasons why philosophy is still important
Is Philosophy “Dead” in the Age of Science?
Big shot popularizers of science like Neil deGrasse Tyson are known for making disparaging comments about philosophy and its relevance in the 21st century. He said,
“Yeah, if you are distracted by your questions so that you can’t move forward, you are not being a productive contributor to our understanding of the natural world.”
That’s philosophy in a nutshell to a lot of people: “being distracted by stupid questions”. Who needs it?
In a certain sense, I am sympathetic to this attitude. Indeed, I just recently shared an article on Medium about why I think academic philosophy is bankrupt.
While I share Wittgenstein’s opinion that most academic philosophical research is just nonsense, I nevertheless contend that teaching philosophy classes is an important civic function and philosophy itself is simply a part of what it means to be human, to have big brains with a lot of thoughts that need organizing and confronted with a reality that requires understanding.
However, although I am happy I left academic philosophy to pursue my writing career, I still get a little defensive when people who don’t know what they’re talking about start spouting off about philosophy and why it’s stupid.
But you know what’s not stupid? Figuring out whether the President of the United States just made a logical fallacy:
Holding our politicians and media responsible to reason and good thinking is one the most important civic duties of the philosophically minded.
Some politicians have questioned whether it’s really still necessary to publically fund the work of philosophers in colleges and universities. Do we really need to be paying these people money to be professional doers of philosophy? Entire philosophy departments are being axed.
Often critics of philosophy make comparisons to the “productivity” of philosophy vs science to make the case that science is the more important of the two enterprises and that we should be putting 100% of our energy as a society into doing more science and less philosophy.
They’ll point out that philosophy has not even come close to doing something dramatic like putting a man on the moon or building the internet.
So what has philosophy done?
This is harder to answer for the fruits of philosophy are not easily observed — they cannot be easily measured like the accomplishments of engineering or the drugs of pharmacology. But if you look carefully you can see the effect of philosophy (or the lack of philosophy) everywhere.
I believe there are at least four main fruits of philosophy:
- fruits of critical thinking
- scientific criticism
- ethical reasoning
Fruits of critical thinking
One of the primary functions of the professional philosopher is to teach philosophy 101, critical thinking, logic, and other classes where the goal is just to make you a better thinker. This is also true of higher-level classes too e.g. philosophy of science.
For many people these classes are their first introduction to the process of systematically applying reason to the world around them, as well as becoming acquainted with the world of ideas familiar to philosophers — a world that has been incredibly influential to cultures around the world for millennia.
I want to emphasize that philosophical education does not happen justin the classroom. It is also happening online through youtube, blogs, or wherever philosophers can connect with people.
Good reasoning is sorely needed in our democratic society — just making more people able to apply reason to political ads on TV or to the click-bait article they saw on Facebook is a tremendously important thing.
In the age of “fake news” and Russian Twitter bots disseminating propaganda — the tools of philosophy are critical to sorting through good and bad sources of information.
In my opinion, the reputation of philosophy as “useless” stems from its tendency to generalize the situation. It’s a generalist profession.
Thus, philosophers are typically pretty good at applying critical analysis to any type of information because they recognize certain argumentative patterns and how humans tend to make inferences. Knowing the patterns puts philosophically minded people on guard against the shoddy inferences being made by everyone all the time.
It’s a never ending battle against hasty generalizations, ad hominems, dogmatism, arguments from authority, sloppy thinking, ambiguity, vagueness, etc., etc. Once you start being aware of these logical fallacies, you will literally see them constantly in the media.
This battle against poor thinking is the primary duty of those who consider themselves philosophers. Teaching students that style of thinking serves a protective mechanism for a democratic society.
But I think that kind of philosophical teaching can be done on the internet, for free, in plain English, through the powers of social media — especially on excellent platforms like Medium and elsewhere.
I want to emphasize, however, the importance of correcting poor thinking while also not being an asshole. Going around a party pointing out logical fallacies is probably not going to win you popularity contests. There is a certain tact that is needed. It has to happen in the right context. And it’s not about proving ourselves to be superior rational thinkers.
Furthermore, we need to apply an intersectional lens and think about disability: not everyone has the same cognitive capacities and we should be sensitive to factors such as disability, race, or socio-economic status before we pounce on someone for displaying “shoddy thinking”.
Fruits of scientific criticism
Philosophy was once considered the Queen of the Sciences. It served as the epistemological foundation for logically securing the inferences of science.
It still plays that role — albeit kind of in the background and hard to see. As Daniel Dennett famously said, there is no philosophy free science, only science that hasn’t analyzed its philosophical baggage. But all science has baggage and hidden assumptions about how reality is supposed to work.
For example, take the science of thermometry i.e. measuring heat.
Imagine there were no thermometers at all in your society and you decided to make one. So you build a mercury thermometer and it seems to work. But how do you know it’s measuring this thing, “heat”, accurately?
Your neighbor is also interested in thermometry and he built a gas thermometer because he feels that based on his theory of gases that a gas thermometer would be better than a mercury thermometer.
You test both thermometers and they give very slightly different readings. Which one is correct? You’d need a third thermometer to compare.
Either that or you’d need some kind of theoretical consensus on how heat functions to answer which thermometer would be best suited for measuring “heat”, which you’re still not super sure how it works because you haven’t built a valid thermometer yet.
As you can see, the epistemological justifications for measuring “heat” go round in a circle. How did the original inventors of thermometry solve this problem? They worried about it immensely but ultimately just shelved the problem because they were first and forement experimentalists.
They didn’t need the theory because they were getting so much great data. It wasn’t until centuries later that advances in theoretical physics paved the way for the modern understanding of heat. But the science of thermometry still progressed through experimentalist skill.
Hasok Chang has written a marvelous book called “Inventing Temperature” on the science of thermometry and history of scientists building thermometers.
But Chang does more than just give the history — he analyses the epistemic issues involved in the nature of scientific explanation and the nature of this particular kind of scientific circularity, which he calls the “problem of nomic measurement”:
- We want to measure quantity X.
- Quantity X is not directly observable, so we infer it from another quantity Y, which is directly observable.
- For this inference we need a law that expresses X as a function of Y, as follows: X=f(Y).
- The form of this function f cannot be discovered or tested empirically, because that would involve knowing the values of both Y and X, and X is the unknown variable that we are trying to measure.
Most people think the epistemic foundations of thermometry are on very sturdy grounds. But things are much more complicated in terms of the number of inferential steps needed to conclude anything about “heat” using a measuring device.
But can you imagine the epistemic dangers lurking in “softer” sciences like psychology studying things like “memory” and “consciousness”? Philosophers are having a bonanza right now with the softer human sciences because there is shoddy reasoning and hidden assumptions everywhere you look.
Philosophy serves the sciences well by providing a critical analysis of the lurking philosophical assumptions implicit to all scientific inquiry.
Which is not to say actual professional philosophers need to be employed by labs for science to make progress. It’s just that usually the best scientists of their time have a keen appreciation of the deeper philosophical questions.
Fruits of ethical reasoning
One of the most important fruits of philosophical inquiry is the discovery of the fact/value distinction. Science can tell us what is the case but it cannot tell us what ought to be the case.
Just having a keener awareness that facts by themselves don’t entail anything about what we ought to do gives you a healthy appreciation of the difficulty of doing ethics, of thinking about how we ought to live our lives when confronted with tough choices and ethical dilemmas.
If you don’t think philosophy is relevant to issues in the 21st century you aren’t following the abortion debate happening in the United States right now.
The abortion debate is fundamentally a debate about how to define personhood, which is a question philosophers have been wrestling with for thousands of years.
There is a reason that most hospitals employ philosophers trained to deal with medical situations: real life often involves complex ethical issues involving life and death. Do we unplug this loved one from their feeding tube?
It’s not always obvious what doctors or caretakers “ought” to do in situations like these. Being trained to make really, really careful distinctions can help isolate the values at stake and allow people to make critical healthcare decisions in a more reasonable and ethical manner in accordance to their deepest convictions.
The same principles of careful ethical reasoning apply to every other area in life, from what we eat and how we raise our food, to how we spend our money, to who we vote for, to how we take care of the needy, etc.
Humans are ethical creatures and philosophy is very adept at teaching you the complexities of our normative life, the life of ethics and morality that makes human society so complicated. Which is not to say that philosophy will give you answers. But it will certainly bring more awareness to the moral and normative dimension of human life.
Fruits of wisdom
Philosophy is of course a discipline that has roots in the wisdom tradition: the long chain of humans who have wanted to not just learn to talk about the Good Life but to actually live it.
That is what wisdom is all about: knowing how to live a good life. Knowing what’s valuable in life and what’s not. So often you hear people on their deathbeds express regret that they worked too hard at their careers and had a warped sense of the important things in life. (Top 5 Deathbed Regrets)
For most people the important things in life typically revolve around developing good relationships, being true to yourself, finding a passion or interest that consumes you, enjoying family, friends, and lovers, not worrying so much about money, slowing down, etc.
Philosophy is far from dead and in fact could not die because children are excellent philosophers.